Tuesday, November 25, 2014

In defense of the ugly.

Three year old Mia loves the radio and constantly demands it be switched on so she can sing and dance along. I enjoy it as well, since I find current popular music sing-along-able again; unlike even a year ago when all that hip hop and trance made me feel victimized (“is he yelling at me? What did I do?”) and dated (“This must be a young-person song.”).

Her “favourite” (she has about 22) is “badaarex badaarex, no trouble”. This is not, in fact, a jingle for a laxative but her interpretation of Meghan Trainor’s song, ‘All about that bass, about that bass, no treble’. I think it’s pretty catchy too, and initially thought it had a message that matched my own convictions. But I’ve heard it so many times by now, that I’ve started wondering if I really do agree with it. Yes, yay for women with big asses, hooray that men sometimes like plump girls (what upright citizens such men are!), and all that. On the surface this is a much better message to girls than endless songs with names like “Let’s Do It Doggie Style and Then If You’re Lucky I’ll Spank You”.

But it gets me thinking: we are still reassuring ourselves about our appearances on the condition that men like us that way. Not to mention how disturbing it is that a mother would comfort her presumably fat-bottomed young daughter with assurances of “men like a little more bootie to hold at night”.

Name one song where a male singer moans about having a big bum or being overweight; and suffers a consequent crisis of confidence about his sexual appeal. Something along the lines of “That Hottie Ain’t Gonna Let Me Hit That Because I Ain’t a Skinny Thang.”

I’m not blaming the creators of the song, they’re addressing a real issue with all us girls and women. My problem is why we have this issue in the first place.

It’s not only music. Look at movies. Or at least the more conventional, popular sort of cinema not starring Dame Judi Dench in the lead. The heroine will meet her man with a soft light irradiating her features, her hair billowing in an invisible zephyr; and the hero will blink a few times, so dazzled he is by her beauty. He will tell people or the woman herself at a later point of the movie with a beatific smile; “THAT was the very moment I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her, because she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen…”

Really? Really? Where is the connection? It is rarely when the hero sees her helping a blind guy across the street, or because she’s hilarious and makes him laugh; or because she’s good at what she does (all criteria for the heroines to fall for the hero, by the way.) Even if she is shown doing any or all of these things; the hero will only fall (or realize that he’s fallen) in love with the woman when her hair is well-conditioned, her skin is doing this bizarre shining thing and she’s preferably wearing something low cut.

That’s when the slow motion kicks in and the face sucking ensues. Why? Is beauty the only quality men look for in women? And this is not always a type of beauty that can be directly related to good health or fertility; a desire for which we are told is biologically hardwired into men; since the demand for sickly stick-insect women is a common cause for angst among more ‘traditionally built’ women.
Wouldn’t something like being a good human being, or a good companion be a better indicator of who the hero “KNEW” he HAD to spend the rest of his life with? Why don’t any of the heroines EVER say, “he was the cutest guy I’d ever seen, so it was imperative I spend every day with him until I died.”

You know why? Because it’s a stupid thing to say, that’s what. But somehow, when the man says it, it’s completely understandable -- because beauty is such a supreme achievement, such a product of extreme hard work in a woman. It is not at all an accident of nature that your nose lines up in a pleasant way with your mouth, which is at a suitable distance from your chin and so on.

I know it sounds like sour grapes…it probably is, but it doesn’t make what I say less true.

You would think books would be slightly better. Literature being, nowadays, more of an acquired taste. Regrettably, for a female character to be understood, her looks are to be dissected exhaustively. More often than not, she is beautiful. If not; a big deal will be made of how, even though she isn’t conventionally beautiful – a big mouth or curly hair often being the rather pleasing culprits – she is beautiful, none the less; which the hero will tell her at some point much to her surprise and gratification. It is a complete cop-out by an author if ever I’ve seen one.

If the book goes so far as have an honest-to-goodness plain (never ugly) female protagonist, her romantic interest will still think her the most beautiful woman in the world. Because after all---a man cannot want to be with her unless deluded into believing this. Or he is conveniently struck blind so that he is spared the pain of watching an already plain woman degenerate into middle-aged ugliness, like Mr. Rochester.

Rarely is the main female character (in a romantic scenario) ugly and/ or with a physical impairment like a limp -- though you will find literature simply littered with such male characters. Case in point is JK Rowling’s new Cormoran Strike series. He is called “pubehead” because of the unfortunate texture of his hair (on his head) and has a prosthetic limb which frequently gives him trouble. Enter the breathtakingly beautiful platinum blonde assistant who helps him occasionally when his leg lets him down. She is so luminous a specimen that no disguise can mask her beauty, leading to all sorts of tricky situations.

Was making the primary female character beautiful so much more important than her being an efficient undercover sleuth? I lost a great deal of respect for the author after reading that part, let me tell you; though I am a loyal fan of the Harry Potter series and its unfortunate looking female character Hermione. It is unfortunate that Warner Brothers sold out and got a pretty girl to play the character even though they were quite satisfied with Ron looking like an overgrown rabbit.
Shrek was an endearing exception, though I doubt Fiona would have been allowed to settle down with someone who wasn’t an ogre. If a woman is ugly she should AT LEAST marry someone equally or more ugly than she. It’s only right.

It worries me that my little girl is exposed to this toxic attitude. (Along with far worse, more blatant sexist biases; but since we are all aware of those they are far less subliminal and can be tackled effectively.)

The politically correct across all media will mouth the ‘just be yourself’ tag; but it’ll usually be meant for the chubby boy with the glasses rather than his female version. For girls, it’s “be yourself”, as long as you look good. If you’re a chubby girl with glasses and weird hair, please don’t be yourself…cue music for makeover scene, followed directly by the desired boy gulping like a fish and paying her attention.

Of course, if one puts one’s mind to it there are plenty of exceptions, like Little Miss Sunshine or Juno among recent movies. Much of Jane Austen (bless that woman) and plenty more. But unless you are super selective of what you read, hear and see -- the more urgent message being pounded into the heads of anyone with two X chromosomes is if you’re plain you better get prettied up, if you’re beyond- redemption-ugly you don’t deserve love, and ergo, be forever relegated as a side character in a song, movie or book about someone else.

Now that I’ve had time to think about it, why am I beating artists up, when all they do is reflect life in their art? Or at any rate, what most people think life should be like, and wish to see that in what they read, see or hear?

While I myself am greatly appreciative of beauty; indeed, take pride in my daughter’s cuteness and occasionally try to de-ugly myself before meeting a large gathering of unsuspecting people, it saddens me that rather than it be one of many attributes a girl can or cannot acceptably have, like a talent for dance or an ability to wiggle her ears – good looks is THE first and last thing people will look for in her all her life.

And so it is, that perfectly good women are socially ignored or passed over for their more aesthetically pleasing counterparts. Despite sometimes (not always, of course, I know plenty beautiful AND wonderful women), their having more to offer than the latter.


I think it’s a shame, that’s all.

1 comment:

Nisha Kurian said...

Finally, a much awaited post :-). Enjoyed reading what you observed. But we are grooming our children like that. Our girls are angels, princess, dolls....basically beautiful. And boys are superheroes already.